Research, Science & environment

Grad student finds inspiration in the clouds

UC Berkeley graduate student Greg Goldsmith may have his head in the clouds, but he is firmly grounded in the reality of global warming and the danger it poses to the Central American cloud forests he loves. He developed an elementary school curriculum as a way to help save them.

Greg Goldsmith has his head in the clouds. But the University of California, Berkeley, graduate student is also firmly grounded in today’s reality: the Central American cloud forests he loves are threatened by global warming.

Greg Goldsmith explains his fascination with cloud forests and his efforts to share that passion with elementary school students. 
(Costa Rica video footage courtesy Colin Witherill, Broadreach Images.  Newscenter video  by Roxanne Makasdjian)

“There’s not much cloud forest, and it’s disappearing,” he said.

To spread the word, Goldsmith teamed up with two visual artists to capture breathtaking, high-definition photos and video of a cloud forest in Costa Rica and then incorporated them into a middle-school curriculum, “Canopy in the Clouds,” about this unique but endangered ecosystem.

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted an outreach component to my dissertation, and I asked myself, ‘How can I make this work accessible to the general public?’” said Goldsmith, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in integrative biology. “As a scientist, I’ve always believed that I have an obligation to explain my research to others.”

With two Young Explorers grants from the National Geographic Society, Goldsmith began working with New York-based photographer Drew Fulton and cinematographer Colin Witherill of Colorado to shoot in the treetops and on the forest floor in Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve to create videos and high-resolution “spherical” panoramas that would inspire students and the public to care about these rare ecosystems.

The Center for Tropical Forest Science was so impressed by the photos, videos and Goldsmith’s passion that it provided funding for two middle-school teachers to work with Goldsmith to create 26 lesson plans centered around the visual materials for use in school biology classes.

Canopy top to forest floor

The gorgeously green panoramas, which can be explored in 360 degrees as well as up and down, are sprinkled with clickable links that open videos or text about the plants and animals inhabiting the forest. Goldsmith is the narrator, popping his head above the leafy canopy or emerging from the dense undergrowth to talk about wind-swept elfin forests at the tops of mountains or the epiphytes – plants, such as orchids, that grow on others for support – that cover all available surfaces in the forest.

The curriculum, translated into Spanish as “Dosel en Las Nubes,” is being tested with nearly 1,000 students in 10 schools in Costa Rica, while the English-language lesson plans have been downloaded more than 2,000 times from the Canopy in the Clouds Website since its launch in January 2011.

“Most of (the students) were aware of the (the cloud forest’s) existence, but many of them had never seen it, and most of them are more interested in it now,” said Roberto Quirós of the Fundación Omar Dengo, a private non-profit organization in Costa Rica that trains teachers to use innovative educational tools and technology, including Canopy in the Clouds. “I hope students become more interested in science … more environmentally aware … (and) more aware of how science creates knowledge, and that this can be achieved by Costa Ricans as well.”

A unique aspect of the curriculum is a section entitled “Ask an Expert,” which allows students to ask questions of nine scientists who have volunteered to respond within a few days.

“’Ask an Expert’ is awesome,” said Sophia Tkac, who used portions of the curriculum last spring with her first grade class at Trevista at Horace Mann school, which is in a low-income area of Denver, Col. She found that many of the students used free class time to explore the rain forest panoramas and videos time after time, and were eager to ask Goldsmith questions. “Afterwards, they were saying things like, ‘I want to be a scientist.’ They thought scientists are cool,” Tkac said.

Greg Goldsmith in the cloud forest canopy.

Greg Goldsmith in the cloud forest canopy cuttung small leaf samples for physiology measurements. (Photo courtesy of Drew Fulton)

From cooking into the clouds

Goldsmith, 28, graduated in 2005 from Bowdoin College with a degree in biology and environmental studies. After a break from biology to obtain a certificate from Boston University’s famed culinary arts program, he joined the UC Berkeley lab of Todd Dawson, a professor of integrative biology. Dawson is well-known for his work on redwood trees in California’s cool coastal fog belt.

“I admire Greg’s passion and commitment to this very important mission,” Dawson wrote in an email from South Africa, where he is on sabbatical. “His work on the ecophysiology of cloud forest plants in Costa Rica and Mexico is helping to fill some important knowledge gaps about how these plants are responding to climate and climate change, but he is also extending what he is learning to draw in the youth … to learn about the forests in their own country and the importance of seeing it protected for generations to come.”

Goldsmith noted that, while much is known about the animals – endangered frogs and birds like the resplendent quetzal – that inhabit the mountainous cloud forests of Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico, very little is known about the plants. In the Monteverde Cloud Forest where Goldsmith works and filmed, there are more than 2,000 different plant species, including 750 trees – as many as are found in the entire United States.

His research focuses on how plants respond to changes in the weather, especially seasonal droughts, and what this bodes for the future when the dry season is expected to become more severe as the clouds dissipate.

“We can scale up from the leaf to the branch, then to the tree, and ultimately to the forest in order to predict how the cloud forest ecosystem will respond to changes in the environment,” he said.

Goldsmith added that what he learns will help improve the Canopy in the Clouds curriculum.

His devotion to education may herald a new attitude among future scientists at a time when “the public perception of scientists is declining,” he said. “I think you will find that this generation of science students will be much more engaged with the general public.”

This can only benefit K-12 students, who get much more out of interactive photos and video than they can from pictures in a book, Tkac said.

“This is as close as these kids can come to walking around a cloud forest,” she said.